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Wanda Williams overcomes Eric Papenfuse’s write-in challenge; scores win in Harrisburg mayor’s race

She will become the city’s second Black mayor and just the second woman to hold the position.

  • Charles Thompson/PennLive
Wanda Williams, Democratic candidate for mayor of Harrisburg, awaits the results of the primary election, May 18, 2021.

 Mark Pynes / PennLive

Wanda Williams, Democratic candidate for mayor of Harrisburg, awaits the results of the primary election, May 18, 2021.

(Harrisburg) — Harrisburg, you have a new mayor.

WIth all city precincts reporting, Wanda Williams had 4,402 votes, or 64.9 percent of the total, while 1,911 write-in votes were cast. That margin effectively means that she has successfully beat back incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse’s off-ballot bid for a third term, and triumphed in a personal rivalry that has turned into open warfare in recent weeks.

Republican Tim Rowbottom trailed with 465, or 6.9 percent of the vote.

“We did it!” a jubilant Williams shouted as she took to the stage at her end-of-campaign celebration. “This is our victory together!”

The win is historic: Williams, who is the current city council president, will become the city’s second Black mayor, and just the second woman to hold that position.

Kalim A. Bhatti / The Philadelphia Inquirer

The city of Harrisburg.

“The residents of Harrisburg will finally have an authentic mayor – and that’s me – who is rooted in the community, and who is going to take input from the community, and is going to assure that this beautiful city of ours lives, breathes and feels like the community it wants to become,” Williams said in a brief address to her supporters.

“We’ll judge my success or my failure based on how you (city residents) are feeling and how this city is progressing.”

The results will not become official until the final totals are certified later this month. On Friday, county elections officials will begin the process of reviewing the write-in ballots to get a final count for Papenfuse. But Tuesday’s results guarantee that whatever that final number is, Williams is going to win and will take the mayor’s office in January.

Williams’ supporters, family and campaign volunteers took in the news in a raucous celebration marked by chest-shaking bass at the S-Club restaurant near the Uptown Plaza shopping center.

Papenfuse and his wife, meanwhile, shared pizza with a handful of remaining campaign volunteers at his campaign headquarters on North Second Street. He had not responded to requests for comment on the results by 11:30 p.m.

Williams’ victory comes after one of the strangest local political campaigns in recent memory.

She and Papenfuse, who is nearing the end of his second term as mayor, fought to a near draw in a five-way Democratic primary field this spring; Williams won by 46 votes to capture the prized Democratic Party ballot slot, but neither candidate won even 30 percent of the vote cast.

Declaring that that was not a mandate, and arguing that all voters in the city should have a final choice this fall with a narrower field, Papenfuse launched his write-in bid shortly after Labor Day.

City Council President Wanda Williams speaking on Sunday, February 18, 2018.

Vicki Vellios Briner / Special to PennLive

City Council President Wanda Williams speaking on Sunday, February 18, 2018.

Williams, meanwhile, suffering the deaths of her mother in September and her father in October, spent huge chunks of the campaign on the sidelines, relying heavily on the power of her volunteers, party activists and a series of big-name endorsements to keep her effort moving.

But Williams’ campaign, even during the primary, was always light on policy proposals.

The longtime city council member instead relied on her familiarity with voters as the only lifelong resident of Harrisburg on the ticket and a 16-year member of city council who prides herself on taking phone calls about constituent concerns at all times, and then working to get results for them.

It seemed to be a winning formula.

“She’s just been in this community forever, and I think she’s the best fit for the city,” said Anna Britton, 35, as she left the 10th Ward, 2nd Precinct at Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion Church.

Papenfuse, effectively running as an independent, ran a campaign that was split between public education on how to cast a write-in ballot, and making the case that Williams would be a poor leader to continue Harrisburg’s fiscal and economic recoveries.

He tried to sell voters on a record of ethics and competency at City Hall over the last eight years, while laying out an expansive vision for a third term fueled by the promise of $48 million in federal pandemic relief dollars.

In the waning days of the campaign, Papenfuse’s campaign also opened a Website that highlighted several personal financial problems in Williams’ past, including a guilty plea in 2014 to a summary charge for not filing a local income tax return for 2011.

He also attacked Williams for being on the wrong side of Harrisburg’s debt issue in 2011, when she voted with a council majority to push the city – ultimately unsuccessfully – into a municipal bankruptcy. Williams has countered that the move helped Harrisburg get the best possible deal from its creditors in the long run.

One thing that appeared to help Williams Tuesday was that she seemed to be picking up support from people who backed primary rival Otto Banks in the primary, even though Papenfuse and Banks became allies against Williams in the general election campaign.

Several Banks’ voters reached Tuesday as they left the polls said they were switching to Williams because they just believe that Williams has a better feel for the day-to-day problems that city residents face, such as rising rents and too many shootings.

That combined with a criticism of Papenfuse that has dogged him almost from the start of his tenure as mayor in 2014, that he was the mayor for some and not for all.

“I just want to see if there will be a change this time around,” said voter Aleisha Williams, no relation to the new mayor. “We have a city with a lot of abandoned houses and empty and vacant buildings and we don’t see anything done about them because he (Papenfuse) is focused on the downtown area and getting that situated.

“But the whole city is more than downtown.”

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